Learning to Bake Bread
For a long time now I have wanted to learn how to bake bread properly. I just love the smell and taste of it when freshly baked and so wanted to be able to replicate it myself. As a child, Mum used to have a bread maker and sometimes we would wake up to the smell of homemade bread and it was simply the best. I have longingly looked at several bread making and other cooking courses, worrying about whether I could or couldn’t do it. Most people learn by watching visual demonstrations on what to do, which I am not able to do. I need someone to physically show me by either letting me feel their hands or actually taking hold of my hands and guiding me through the process. In a group course this isn’t always possible as the teacher isn’t able to focus all their time on me, as it wouldn’t be fair on everyone else attending the course. So this always put me off and stopped me from doing one.
For Christmas, Neil decided to surprise me by contacting our local cookery school and asking them if they would be able to support me on a cooking course and when they said yes, bought me a voucher. The school is The Cheshire Cookery School and they were brilliant. They basically said that I could attend so long as I brought someone else along with me, but I wouldn’t need to pay for them. They could then work with me to show me what I needed to do and help me get the most out of the course. Fortunately, I have a few friends that are both interested in cooking and also very good at helping me. One of them is Penny who accompanied me on the day and helped to make it such an enjoyable experience.
In a way I was really glad I got to go along with someone else, as I would never have had the confidence to go on my own. I get nervous of going in to new places with groups of people I don’t know, so having the company helped to ease these nerves. Also an experience shared with a friend is far more enjoyable than doing something on your own.
When I first got the voucher, I excitedly looked through all the different courses that The Cheshire Cookery School had to offer, trying to decide which one I wanted to do. There were so many choices that all appealed, including sushi making, pasta making, Indian cookery and Middle Eastern cookery just to name a few, but the one that stood out by a mile was bread making, so I eagerly booked on to it and looked forward to attending.
The day started at 10am and when we arrived the chef was busy preparing all our ingredients for us, while we sat and chatted and drank coffee or tea. It felt really friendly and relaxed and put me at ease straightaway. We were first given a quick health and safety briefing before being taken through in to the kitchen and given our work stations. There was not too big a group of people doing the course, around 12 and so it didn’t feel too overwhelming. It kept it feeling friendly and meant that the chef had plenty of time to get to everyone, so we all felt well supported.
The chef, Alex, started by firstly reassuring us that the day was meant to be a fun experience. To maximise the amount of time we had to learn and practice making bread, all our ingredients had been pre-prepared and weighed out for us, while all washing and tidying up would be done for us afterwards. My idea of heaven.
The first bread to be made was a wholemeal loaf, which we could then flavour as we wish. We all gathered around the front for Alex’s demonstration, which he gave with clear and simple instructions, so that even I felt like I knew what I needed to do without being able to see. He explained that as it was a particularly hot day, we would try to minimise using equipment as this would add heat and noise in to the room and so we would do all the mixing and kneading of the dough by hand. This I thought was brilliant as I’m good at using my hands, its equipment that i’m more often nervous of using.
We went back to our work stations, eager to get cracking. All the dry ingredients, flour, sugar, salt, yeast, were already mixed and just needed to be added to our bowls, we just needed to rub through the little bit of lard in to the flour mix to form fine breadcrumbs, before pouring in warm water. I then went hands first in to my bowl eager to start binding and kneading my dough. It was disgusting! I thought I would enjoy the feeling of gooey, sticky, sloppy mess on my hands, but turns out I don’t. I didn’t like how it stuck to my hands and I couldn’t seem to get rid of it. Once I got over the initial disgust and got used to how it felt however, I did start to enjoy squeezing, stretching and playing with the mixture. It was strangely satisfying feeling it change beneath my fingers from something sloppy and lumpy to a smooth and pliable dough. I definitely need to work on my kneading technique, I’m a little too gentle, but I’m keen to work on it and get more practice.
Once the dough was suitably kneaded, it was time to divide it in half and flavour as we chose. I took half and Penny took the other, as even though she was there to support me, I wanted her to enjoy the day as well. I went with marmalade, orange zest and walnuts, while Penny did apple and walnut. I slightly regret choosing marmalade, as it made the dough wetter and stickier and a lot harder to knead, but the next day when I ate it for breakfast, I was really glad I went with it as it tasted delicious. Once that was done, it was time to cover the dough with clingfilm and leave it to prove. I thought we would need to leave it somewhere fancy like a proving drawer that I don’t have at home, but we just left them on a table and that was fine. This really reassured me that I could repeat it at home and make it myself, as I didn’t require any fancy equipment.
While we were doing this, the chef was busy preparing our lunch, a butternut squash soup which smelled amazing. He demonstrated how to make a soda bread, which we would make and eat with our soup. This was even easier than the last bread as it doesn’t use yeast and so doesn’t need to be left to prove. It took us around 15 minutes to make and the same to bake in the oven and tasted delicious hot, dunked in our amazing soup. It was so satisfying eating something I had successfully made and reassuringly actually tasted quite good.
After lunch it was back to our cleaned and tidied up work stations to learn to make two more breads. The first thing we noticed was that fancy Kitchen Aid food mixers had appeared on our work surfaces. I have often longingly eyed up a Kitchen Aid whenever I spot them on sale when browsing Lakeland or other kitchen gadget shops. They are so good at what they do, while also being extremely easy to use, so they really tempt me. But they are also extremely expensive and I don’t think I would make use of it enough to justify it and they also take up quite a lot of space. Alex explained that for the next bread we would need to make use of the machine, as to beat it by hand would take too much time and effort.
However the first task of the afternoon was to check on our wholemeal loaves before putting them in the oven to bake. Ours unfortunately hadn’t risen quite as much as we had hoped, but Alex reassured us that he could see bubbles in the dough and so it would rise in the oven and be fine. In they went in to the oven and we proceeded with our ‘how to make brioche’ demonstration. Mixing and kneading dough is far easier when you have a machine to do it for you. I quite enjoyed not getting my hands all gloopy and messy this time. Brioche dough is a very different texture to standard bread dough. It is wetter and softer, meaning it doesn’t hold its shape as well.
The smell in the kitchen was starting to get really appealing, as all the wholemeal loaves baked away in the ovens. Towards the end of the process it was time to introduce a little steam in to the oven to help crisp up the crust. We simply poured a table spoon of water in to the bottom of the oven and shut the door quickly, nothing technical. It did make a satisfying sizzling noise though as we did it. Alex demonstrated how to hit the bread with the backs of our hands to listen, to tell when it was ready. This is the perfect technique for someone who can’t see, as usually we are told to look for something to have a certain appearance or colour in order for us to know when it is done, but giving me a sound based clue is ideal. It should sound hollow when you hit it. The perfectly VI friendly bread baking technique.
While the brioche was proving and our freshly baked loaves were cooling, it was time to make our fourth and final bread. This was possibly the easiest and personally the one I found most fun. It was flat bread, or pitta bread and it was so simple to make that I’ve been left excited to introduce this a lot more at home in my cooking repitoire. I didn’t realise just how easy it is to make and the finished product is so much tastier than anything shop bought. All you do is mix flour and natural yogurt together with some seasoning to form a very smooth and pliable dough. You don’t need to knead it for very long at all, it should be ready in 5 or 10 minutes. Once its all combined, it feels really nice in your hands as well. To make it takes even less time, as all you do is divide the dough in to small but equal quantities, flatten it out either with a rolling pin or even just your hands, then fry it in a dry frying pan for 1-2 minutes each side. I didn’t actually make mine at the time, as I wanted to take my dough home with me to make fresh for my tea so I could enjoy it properly, but I did get a taste of the batch that Alex had made. Pleasingly, when I did make them for my tea, they did taste almost the same as the ones earlier in the day.
The plan with the brioche once it was finished proving was to shape it in to fancy brioche rolls. This didn’t quite go to plan and mine looked nothing like how they were meant to. We were meant to form 6 large round blobs topped with a smaller round blob, only mine ended up spreading and combining to form puddles instead. We almost ended up with a Great British Bake Off style mishap as well, Penny accidentally picked up someone else’s dough instead of ours, but fortunately we noticed in time and were able to swap back without causing too much trouble. Unconventional shape aside, they still did taste good and as I had made seven instead of six, Penny and I were able to share one straight from the oven and still take three home each for later.
The whole day went by really quickly and I was amazed by how much I had made and what I achieved. Throughout the day Alex shared lots of other tips and tricks on how to make things like sourdough and focaccia. He invited lots of questions and always gave honest answers in a really friendly and approachable manner. I never once felt out of my depth, overwhelmed, or like I didn’t know what I was doing. I can’t believe how much bread I got to take home with me. I was glad I had someone to share it all with, as there is no way myself and Neil could have eaten it all. Even so we stuffed ourselves with the rest of the soda bread, brioche and pitta for tea with some mackerel pate and spicy bean dip that I had made myself and will share the recipes for in time. The orange and marmalade wholemeal loaf we saved and toasted the next morning for breakfast. There was also still some brioche left the next day, which we also toasted and which I highly recommend.
I still have a little money left on the voucher, which means I can do another course as well. I need to decide what else I want to learn to do and book it soon so I don’t forget. I enjoyed the experience so much that I can’t wait to learn more and also practice what I’ve learnt at home. Its also made me really want to buy a proper food mixer and processor, so that I can make the dough without having to get my hands too messy. I’m currently eyeing up a few possibilities, and I have a birthday coming up soon, so maybe, just maybe, I will get one.
As I’m looking to make use of my new found bread making skills, does anyone have any good bread recipes they would like to share?
Thank you for reading and speak soon.